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Runner’s Plate: Eat and drink your way to a healthy immune system

Posted Feb 05 2013 10:32am

It’s that time of year – it’s cold, you’re stuck inside, and it seems everyone around you is coughing, sneezing, or blowing their nose. It’s already been a pretty bad flu season, and there’s talk that it could get worse. Just in time for the start of many spring marathon training plans.

No runner, in training or not, enjoys being stuck in bed instead of outside running. A bad cold can keep you out of those running shoes for a week or more, which is nothing but frustrating. Rest days are important, but you want them to be planned, or at least taken when you feel like you need them, not because you’re sick.

While it’s nearly impossible to avoid all exposed to any germs (although feel free to give those coworkers who come to work looking like they are on their death bed some dirty looks or a friendly little email telling them to go home), there is plenty you can do to keep yourself healthy, or at least decrease the time that you’re sidelined from your beloved sport. A healthy immune system starts with what you’re putting into your mouth. No, I’m not talking about downing a bunch of Emergen-C or taking mega doses of supplements each morning. I’m talking food. Food in it’s natural form.

5 ways to eat (and drink) your way to a healthy immune system

  1. Eat lots of color. The best way to ensure you’re building a healthy immune system is by eating a variety of fruits and vegetables. It’s the vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals (plant compounds that may provide health benefits) that give fruits and vegetables their vibrant colors, each with different immune building properties. Strive for at least 1 fruit or vegetable from each color of the rainbow per day.
  2. Snack on a handful of almonds or sunflower seeds. They are both rich in vitamin E, which is a powerful antioxidant that plays a role in immune function. Other vitamin E containing foods include wheat germ (sprinkle it on your morning oatmeal or yogurt), peanuts, hazelnuts, and sunflower oil. Just make sure to watch those portion sizes, because these foods do have a lot of calories so stick to a one ounce serving which is about 24 almonds, 3 tbsp sunflower seeds, ¼ cup peanuts, 1 tbsp wheat germ, or 1 tbsp sunflower oil.
  3. Pick up some zinc-filled protein. Zinc also plays a role in immune function, and there is some research to show that people with lower levels of zinc intake may be more susceptible to the common cold (and other related viruses). With that said, there is no known benefit to the mega doses found in supplements – and no reason you can’t get everything you need from food. You will find zinc in beef, pork, dark meat chicken, baked beans, chickpeas, yogurt, and fortified cereal, among other foods. Choose a variety of these foods and you’ll easily meet the recommended 11mg for men and 8 mg for women per day.
  4. Add some citrus to your day. Citrus fruits like oranges, grapefruit, tangerines, and clementines are bursting with immune building vitamin C. In addition to helping to keep you from getting sick in the first place, it may also speed up recovery if you do get sick.  Once again, there is no known benefit to mega doses of vitamin C, and as long as you’re eating a variety of fruits and vegetables, you are likely getting all you need. In fact, one orange has more than 100% of your daily needs. And don’t forget about all of the non-citrus fruits and vegetables that offer lots of vitamin C – red and green peppers; strawberries; broccoli; tomatoes; and cantaloupe.
  5. Drink up! Water, that is. Staying well hydrated will help your body remove any toxins from the body. Skip the vitamin water and other drinks that claim to boost your immune system, and stick with calorie-free, sugar-free, water.

Pair this good diet with adequate sleep (7-8 hours per night) and you’re giving your body its best chance to fight off any virus that comes your way.

Do you include these foods in your diet?

(Sarah is a future registered dietitian and is completing a nationally recognized dietetic internship at The Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston  She also holds an MS in Nutrition Communication from Tufts University Friedman School in Boston. Sarah is a certified spin instructor, a triathlete, and an avid runner who regularly participates in road races from 5k to  1/2 marathons.  Follow her onTwitter  @SpinnerSarah  and at her personal blog  Food and Fitness Friend .)

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